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Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, by Martin E. Marty, Jonathan Moore

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Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, by Martin E. Marty, Jonathan Moore

Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, by Martin E. Marty, Jonathan Moore

Public debates about the role of religion in the government in America are often characterized by rancor and bad feelings. It’s questionable whether much progress can be made on this issue if people can’t learn to work together more, so some scholars have been seeking ways to decrease the level of animosity in the rhetoric and arguments. Can this be successful, or will it just lead to empty platitudes?


Title: Politics, Religion, and the Common Good
Author: Martin E. Marty, Jonathan Moore
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
ISBN: 0787950319

• May provide a basis for people to work towards common ideals

• Many ideas are simplistic, some key concepts are not defined

• Analysis of arguments about the role of religion in politics, separation of church and state
• Seeks to provide a basis for conversation rather than argument

Book Review

This is the question readers should be asking when they read Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, by Martin E. Marty and Jonathan Moore. Some people will welcome this contribution to debates over the separation of church and state, seeing it as a valiant effort to launch conversations and dialogues in place of arguments. Others, though, will see it as little more than restatements of the obvious that devolve into platitudes which just aren’t very meaningful.

The authors start out by acknowledging that religion can be dangerous, especially when combined with the coercive power of the state. This won’t come as a surprise to those who fight for the separation of church and state, but it’s something which supporters of greater church/state accommodation would do well to keep in mind. As editor of The Fundamentalism Project, Marty certainly understands the harm religion can do.

Immediately thereafter, however, the authors insist that it’s “worth the risk.” What’s worth the risk? Good question. One of the problems in this book is the failure of the authors to always make it clear what they are talking about. When discussing why it’s “worth the risk,” the authors emphasize issues like how religion isn’t going away, religion is already at work in the public, and religion can combat apathy. All true and all reasons why religion cannot be excluded from public conversations about policy and law; but what does this have to do with the previous chapter?

The significant dangers in religion don’t lie with people who are motivated by their religious beliefs to work for justice in society, but rather with blending the absolutist doctrines of a religion with the coercive power of the government. At no point do the authors directly confront this, either to say “this cannot be allowed to happen” or to say “it’s worth the risk.”

Actually taking a definitive position would irritate one side or the other — is this perhaps the reason why the authors spend more time on generalities on which there is little debate rather than arguing for more specific conclusions? The authors would like the book to be seen as the start of a conversation and perhaps they have delivered this, but it really doesn’t take us very far.

A final problem with the book is that while it is about “politics, religion, and the common good,” only the first two terms are defined. Not every book defines its key terms, but if the authors thought it necessary to define politics and religion, surely it occurred to them to define “common good” as well. So why not do it? This is especially troublesome because they do reference the “common good” more than once.

Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, by Martin E. Marty, Jonathan Moore

Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, by Martin E. Marty, Jonathan Moore

For example, when discussing why “it” is worth the risk, they reference how the Salvation Army does its work with a substantial amount of government money which may violate the separation of church and state, but no one thinks much about that because the group serves the “public good.” Here, the “public good” is defined exclusively in terms of the serving the needs of certain people. Discrimination against gays or members of the “wrong religion” doesn’t violate the public good. Using government funding to proselytize and serve a religious agenda don’t violate the public good.

Since when? Perhaps there are arguments for this, but the failure to define what is meant by common good ensures that they don’t even begin a conversation about this, much less contribute to it. There is no way to discuss the role of religion in public debates or government action without also discussing what the common good is and what serves it best. This book is not without its merits, but the absence of discussion on this means that it falls well short of what is needed.

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